The Autodidact’s Dilemma

Faced with the reality that the editors with whom I was apprenticed (very respected, very talented, and very generous) did not have the time or the textbooks necessary to teach me how to Edit, I set out to teach myself. The primary dilemma when we face a task that is foreign to us is “where do I begin?

Where you begin is a personal choice and as long as it pushes you to dive deeper into or zoom out from a particular discipline, it matters little if you start at the sentence-by-sentence editorial level or the global Big Picture elevation. As someone with a science background, I like to begin at the top of the mountain (a grand hypothesis) and chip my way down to sea level (a series of experiments to test the hypothesis) and eventually into the basements and sub-basements (the tactical approach to setting up the experiments themselves).

Knowing that editing was dependent upon understanding Story, the first question I asked myself was:

“What is the primary divide in the long form Story business?”

If you were to do a flow chart of how book publishing works with a box at the top that says STORY IN BOOK FORM, what would be directly underneath? How many Secondary classifications would there be?”

This turned out to be a simple question to answer. One that I learned on my first day at work.

There are two categories in book publishing, like yin and yang, light and dark, and wet and dry. There is “literary” and “commercial.” The divide seems ridiculous of course, akin to the old chicken and egg debate. Obviously, what is literary must be commercial too and what is commercial is also literary. But these two global designations define the two cultures of book publishing. As a practical matter, it’s crucial to understand exactly what each is and why there is a fissure in the first place.


LITERARY                                                                     COMMERCIAL


If you are a writer, an editor or a publisher in traditional trade book publishing, you have to decide which of these two cultures you want to align yourself.

The “literary” culture is represented by these publishers: Knopf, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Scribner, Random House, Riverhead, Penguin Press and a number of other houses both independent and corporate owned. These houses are known for the high-end literary stuff—Cormac McCarthy, Robert Caro, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Lamott, Richard Powers, Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, etc. Young English Lit grad editorial assistant wannabes long to land a job at one of these houses. Working at these shops gives entrée to Paris Review parties and publishing street cred that says “I’m in it for the right reasons…to nurture tomorrow’s great American novelists.” Acquiring a writer who ends up on The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 can get you a promotion. A rave in The New York Review of Books or The Atlantic puts a swagger in your step.

On the other side of the street is the “commercial” culture, often referred to as Genre fiction (even though every great story abides by genre conventions) and in the case of nonfiction, “Merch” like self-help, how-to, celebrity biography, etc. Future editors in the commercial arena are the nerds you see reading The Hobbit, The Da Vinci Code, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Jaws, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Twilight, Lace or Dune on the beach while the other kids are body surfing. They often come from that wonderful crop of college graduates who don’t know what to do with their lives so decide to find work that pays them to read. They don’t care so much about line by line writing perfection, deep universal truths, or post-modern meta-fiction pyrotechnics, these editors are just addicted to narrative velocity—stories that grab you by the throat and won’t let you go.

At the top of “commercial” pyramid is Women’s fiction—big bestselling books like The Help, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, etc. Women’s fiction doesn’t mean that male writers are excluded from the category. But rather that the books written by men must have themes, characters, or plot-lines that women enjoy. They scale and can reach the million copy sold mark if not ease, at least greater regularity than a war novel.

Estimates reach as high as 70% of the entire book buying market being women. So in order to really hit a book out of the park, a writer/publisher needs to bring women to the party. The male writers that do count women as devoted readers write stories that often include a love story within their overarching plot. Nicholas Sparks is a terrific example of a male writer embraced by a female audience.

Male writers with female readers also feature strong female characters in their novels. Stieg Larsson’s GIRL… thrillers are an example. So too are works by James Patterson, John Grisham, Pat Conroy, David Baldacci, and Dan Brown. These guys are not seen as “boys’ book” writers. They have BIG crossover appeal.

Talent and desire aren’t enough to make the registers ring at retail. For that, you need to have identified your audience and have written your book in such a way as to give them the reason, or “hook,” to buy it.

Ultimately, the question Who’s the target reader, and why? must be answered by everyone in the publishing chain (writer, editor, marketer, publicist, publisher). Identifying the audience (the people who will buy your book) defines which of these two cultures (“Literary” or “Commercial”) you belong.

I see commercial publishers and editors as the empiricists of the industry. Whether they consciously know it or not, they use data from previous successes to support their editorial selections. They think about markets and genres and make as informed decisions as possible when choosing whether or not to publish a particular novel.

For example, years ago I was put in charge of acquiring the rights to mystery novels for Dell Publishing and later St. Martin’s Paperbacks. I was given a limited budget and told to publish two, and later three, mysteries in mass market paperback every month. That’s right 24 and then 36 titles per year.  How did I do it?

First, I familiarized myself with all of the sub-genres of the mystery genre. There are quite a few…Hardboiled , Master Detective, Cozy, Historical, Paranormal, and Police Procedural. (I’ve probably forgotten one or two.) Then I looked at the sales figures for previous mysteries the company had published in each of these subgenres over as many years as I could get data for (back then, mid 1990s, about seven years). What I found was pretty interesting.

For the most part, each of these subgenres was profitable, but inconsistent. One year private eye novels would be on top by a wide margin, and cozies were all red ink. A few years later, cozies were in the black, and private eyes took it on the chin. Armed with this information I decided that the best course of action to be successful, keep my job, and even get promoted would be to publish a wide net of sub-genre mysteries—the cover your ass approach. So I literally divided the number of subgenres into the number of titles I had to publish each year and came up with a number—8 subgenres, 24 titles needed per year. I’d publish 3 novels in each subgenre each year.

Then I tinkered with the list by again looking at the historical performance of the subgenres. I wasn’t the only editor publishing mysteries. I had competitors at every other major publishing house. What they published would influence the marketplace too.  One year the market would be flooded with cat cozies (yes there is a sub-sub-genre of mystery that features a cat as a lead protagonist) and while the top brand name writers in the sub-genre would still perform in big numbers (Lillian Jackson Braun, Rita Mae Brown, Carole Nelson Douglas…they all had three names for some reason), the unknowns found themselves scrambling. The cat cozy market was just about fixed. If there were too many books offered to that limited market, many would fail.

So I made the leap that each genre of mystery had a fixed number of fans. If I knew that one sub-genre was being abandoned by my competitors (back then it was the hardboiled private eye on the ropes), I’d publish more of those kinds of books into the marketplace and fewer of ones that seemed to be “over published.” The fan base would be starved for more hardboiled mysteries and I would be the only one offering them…sales would increase and I’d get a pat on the back. I used this method to justify publishing some extremely talented writers who had just not found their audience yet—Harlan Coben and Ian Rankin among them.

So, that year, even if your cat cozy mystery was exceptional, better than even the best one on the market, your agent would have a tough sell to me. But if you had a compelling lead private eye mystery in a unique setting and a head scratching plot, even if you weren’t the best thing since sliced bread, you’d get yourself a contract. And perhaps vice versa the next year. Commercial editors listen to the market as best they can and then try to find the best books to fill a particular void.

While I can’t attest that every commercial editor uses this sort of model to help them choose which books to get behind, I can say that each one of them has some sort of inner empirical strategy they employ.

About two years after I moved out of mystery genre publishing and into the big-ticket lead commercial hardcover fiction arena, I read Steve Pressfield’s Gates of Fire on submission. Of course I loved the book. I thought it was extremely well written and the sense of time and place were remarkable. But what was the “hook?” Who was the audience? If I couldn’t answer those questions when my publisher and the sales force asked me, there was no way in Hell I’d be able to acquire the book.

I went back to my mystery model.

I looked at the arena. How many war novels were being published in 1996? The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara was a big bestselling book and his son Jeffrey’s prequel Gods and Generals was climbing the charts too. W.E.B. Griffin’s military novels continued to sell in big numbers year after year. And of course Tim O’Brien and James Webb’s Vietnam novels were evergreen backlist bestsellers. But few other titles stood out.

After doing the research, I learned that the military fiction market was under-published at that time.

And as the Spartans were the epitome of warrior culture with Thermopylae holding the preeminent place in western military history, Gates of Fire could reach an audience starved for a brilliantly told historical war novel. The men who read Griffin, O’Brien, Webb, Shaara, even Conroy (his early novels The Boo and The Lords of Discipline are “boy book” military themed classics), and every military nonfiction writer would love this book.

The argument worked.

But I was pitching a commercial publisher and a commercial sales force. If I had been pitching Gates of Fire in a “Literary” house back in 1996, and used these same arguments, I may have been granted approval to acquire the novel, but I don’t think the literary house that published it would have targeted the wide swath of readers we did at Doubleday. That is, they would have “packaged it” (cover treatment, positioning to sales force and retailers, and eventually the message to the consumer) as something compelling for an intellectual crowd as opposed to a good old-fashioned sword and sandal epic.

Back to the two cultures (Commercial and Literary) and why I think they are beginning to merge. Publishers can no longer afford to rely purely on the “literary” category.  The audience for “literary” books has shrunk considerably over the twenty years I’ve been in the business. I think it’s because there is no longer that select New York based media industry intelligentsia that can influence booksellers and book reviewers (both rapidly vanishing) to push a particular novel based on subjective aesthetic literary excellence.

There was a time when the book publishing industry was obsessed with finding the next great American novelist and while there certainly continues to be a longing for such a thing (Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.), grooming one is expensive. Every publisher wants one of these tasteful literary figures to prop up as proof that their lists are fully rounded, but the fact is they just don’t sell like they used to. As for scale, they will never approach a book like The Da Vinci Code.

That doesn’t mean that there is no place for the “literary” anymore. It just means that publishers have had to move the pendulum closer to commercial than literary. Knopf publishes the Stieg Larsson trilogy and has sold millions. And Knopf’s paperback arm, Vintage, publishes the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. They publish certain kinds of commercial fiction because they can pay the bills while they search for the next Roberto Bolano.

What this means is that there is a great demand for novels that can be positioned at the top of the commercial list—thrillers and or dramas that women will want to read. All of the big publishers (with a contracting list of exceptions) are on the hunt for a female friendly literary/commercial commodity.  They don’t care about genre so much as “will it scale?” A crime novel from a National Book Award nominee or a literary novelist taking a crack at a vampire trilogy is the result.

If you are a screenwriter, LITERARY AND COMMERCIAL translates to INDEPENDENT AND STUDIO. If you are a playwright, LITERARY AND COMMERCIAL translates to CHARACTER DRIVEN AND PLOT DRIVEN. If you are a nonfiction writer LITERARY AND COMMERCIAL translates to JOURNALISM AND NARRATIVE NONFICTION. No matter your intended Story career path, the divide remains…and always will.

More on all of this later when I write about INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL forces of conflict.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

19 comments on “The Autodidact’s Dilemma

  1. Thanks Shawn — a great education in the business.

  2. Great stuff Shawn. I’m enjoying your insights into the business.

    You raise the “Who’s the target reader, and why?” question. Why do you think it’s so difficult for authors to answer that question?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for the comment. Well, it’s a big can of worms why authors don’t like to answer the “who’s the target reader, and why?” question. Doing so requires demystifying something (writing) that most people prefer to see as “magical.”

      I think there is a misconception that if you consider the market for a creative work while you are crafting it, you’re a sell-out hack who has no right calling themselves an Artist. I’d wager that Beethoven knew who his listener was when her wrote his piano concertos…Count Moritz von Fries, the guy who paid him to write them. That was Beethoven’s target audience and it seemed to serve him well to please his audience.

      Here’s the thing, no one writes just to “write.” They write to be read. And there is no shame in that…in fact it’s fundamentally human to share a particular vision you have of the world with someone else and have them be entertained and either agree or disagree with you. So thinking about what people would want from you and your story is crucial for you to actually create something that isn’t just a personal work of art that no one will understand, but something that brings value to the world.

      Writers need to cultivate the Editor within themselves…the part that will help them do two things. Create an original work of art (1) that is “of a kind” (2).

      This is why so many people are afraid of calling their work part of a “genre.” Well, sorry, every book ever written is part of a genre. When you write for everyone in the hopes that everyone will think you’re a genius, you are writing for no one. More to come on all of this.

      Your question is obviously a major part of why I started this blog.
      All the best,

      1. Very much looking forward to the, “More on this to come.” Thanks for the response.

      2. Faith Watson says:

        Wow, thank you for this comment. I’m so glad I came back to read each one. I have the opposite weird little voice in my head and this just flipped a switch. As writer focused on marketing most of the time, I naturally think about whether my creative ideas will fly and what people will enjoy or be moved by…. you’re right, there is no shame in that.

        But in the reverse, there’s no shame in being awash in creative inspiration or dedicated to artistic endeavor. It doesn’t have to be all business on the inside (I feel a mullet analogy bubbling up but I’ll leave that one alone). There’s something about writing as a whole person, yes? Inner editor, artist and work work worker?

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Faith,
          Absolutely spot on. The trick is to allow The Writer in you free reign when you’re doing your drafts, and send The Editor in you on vacation. Then when The Writer is done her work, she gets to skip town and The Editor takes over. People get into trouble when they won’t let either The Writer or The Editor rest. When you’re Writing, Write. When you’re Editing, Edit. Don’t Write and Edit at the same time. That is the kiss of death. It’s simple advice, but as one who doesn’t take it myself all of the time, it’s hard to put into practice.

          1. Precisely: be an artist for your art, and an entrepreneur for your business. Do both, just keep ’em separate.

          2. Like Care, I heard about you from Seth Godin’s blog. Thank you for the advice not to write and edit at the same time. Do you ever go back and edit previously published blog posts? Also, have you heard of the Bechdel test?

      3. Care Mycue says:

        Hi Shawn. This post provided a new lens for me to consider my writing through, so thank you for that. This particular response you wrote widened that lens even more.

        I agree that when I started writing, I wanted to be read and discover whether there was any validity to my insights: To test the waters and see if it the world was a safe place for me to share my perspective with, to see whether my insights were useful for anyone beyond myself, and to cultivate a sense of stability at that shaky time in my life.

        Over time, though, writing became a vehicle for me to discover what it is I even knew. When I write from this creative space of discovery, the results of that writing seem to inspire a sense of discovery in others as well. At this point, writing for self-discovery often results in my most popular writing. Especially when I feel stuck, I start writing, and soon I end up with answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to ask (which in turn fuels more writing).

        I like to tell people: “If you want to discover what you know, write a book. If you want to discover what you /don’t/ know, have it edited.” 🙂 I have a sense that following your blog will surely aid my quest in both these modes of self-discovery, so I’m grateful to Seth for mentioning you in his post today. I look forward to reading more from you.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Care,
          Couldn’t agree more. Working on the book made me actually figure out what it is I do and it’s been a remarkable experience. Thanks for checking out the site and trust me, there’s a ton more to come.
          All the best,

        2. Hi Care, do you discover what you don’t know when someone else edits your book, or do you also discover what you don’t know when you edit your own work?

          1. My own experience is that I discover the most about my own feelings and beliefs as I’m making choices about writing, and to a lesser extent, which bits I’m willing to fight my editor to keep.

          2. Care Mycue says:

            Thanks for the question, Erik. This “tongue in cheek” saying came out of an experience with my first manuscript.

            I was shocked at the extensive notes and challenges my editor made to pretty much every paragraph of my “perfect” manuscript! As I went through his very thorough work, I realized I had a lot to learn about both writing and editing.

            As for the second part of your question, what I’ve learned most from editing my own work is that I am (at the moment) the least qualified person to do so. I’m hoping Shawn’s work will help me with that. 🙂

          3. Care Mycue says:

            I had that experience as well, Joel. Fascinating how those rich discussions lead to even greater clarity, and transform unassuming concepts into pivotal components!

  3. Love the blog, Shawn. As if you and Steven and Callie could get more generous! I wouldn’t have believed it, but here it is…

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks so much Maureen. As I explain in the ABOUT section…I ain’t no spring chicken anymore. Better get this stuff out of my head before I forget it.
      All the best,

  4. Caroline says:

    I just found your blog and feel quite thrilled :)! This article gave me fascinating insight into the publishing scene.

    The bits about “women readers” were especially interesting to me. Doesn’t the argument go the other way in the film industry? “We need to apply to a male audience because the female audience will watch movies even if there are almost no female characters.” Also I would use the term “well-rounded female character” rather than “strong female character” – because “strong” has a quite masculine connotation (unfortunately) and I suppose that this is not what you meant.

    Thank you also for making me realize that I need to think more about genres. I have been neglecting that!

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